The Israel experience

Diaspora Jews give back by volunteering in Israel and discover that the scales are tipped in their favor when it comes to what they get in return.

African Resource Development Center (ARDC) 521 (photo credit: courtesy of Mifalot)
African Resource Development Center (ARDC) 521
(photo credit: courtesy of Mifalot)
It is hard to argue that volunteering does not benefit society. Many Diaspora Jews, like yours truly, come to Israel to do some kind of community service to help Israel and the Jewish people. However, what can Diaspora Jews offer Israel beyond good intentions? I thought I would go find out.
I recently had the chance to interview representatives from three wonderful nonprofit organizations which take on Diaspora volunteers. The first was the African Resource Development Center (ARDC), a non-profit organization founded by refugees and Israeli citizens to assist, support and empower refugees and asylum seekers in Israel. The second was The Peres Center for Peace, which develops an infrastructure of peace and reconciliation by and for the people of the Middle East. The center promotes socioeconomic development while advancing cooperation and mutual understanding. Organization number three was Mifalot, the largest and most diverse sport for- development and peace organization in the Middle East.
These conversations provided me with a glimpse of how nonprofits are addressing Israel’s most critical needs and what volunteering looks like in Israel.
“I feel like this is my home.” This is what Samson, an Ethiopian refugee, said about the ARDC as we waited in the lobby. Samson is one of many refugees that migrated from Africa to Israel in the last decade. The ARDC addresses the needs of this growing population in Israel. As Nic Schlagman, ARDC’s Humanitarian Coordinator, said, “A large part of the Jewish story is us being refugees. Therefore, it is important for us to do justice to that legacy. We want to raise awareness about the fact that there are many Jews in Israel serving not only Jews but also the non-Jews that arrive at Israel’s front door.”
Non-Jewish refugees face many obstacles assimilating into Israeli society, such as work visas, language issues, and having limited rights. This is eye opening for the over one hundred individuals that volunteer for ARDC, half of whom are Diaspora Jews. Ronit Zemel, an American volunteer on a Gap year program who is currently serving as a receptionist at the ARDC, said, “Many clients resent that it is so easy for Diaspora Jews like me to be here, which is something I had never thought about.” Volunteering for ARDC has not only helped Ronit learn about societal differences in Israel, but it has also helped her develop a richer conception of Jewish identity within a multicultural society.
The Peres Center for Peace, founded by Shimon Peres, Israel’s President and Nobel Peace Prize winner, advances peace by promoting socio-economic development through the facilitation of professional and personal relationships between Israeli and Palestinian communities. Inbal Yohanan, the Peres Center’s Spokesperson, said, “I believe we do social work, not political work.
We empower communities to find common solutions.” The center’s community development approach means that it has programs in almost every facet of Israeli society, including agriculture, health, business and sport. A great example of their internship program’s success is this letter from former intern Sandy Baum, who helped with administrative and research responsibilities:
“Working in a cubicle makes me realize how lucky I was to experience the meaningful work you are doing. I also miss you all because you were a true family to me while I was in a foreign country. More than that, I miss Israel with all my heart. You are so lucky to be making an impact every day for the sake of the Jewish homeland. Thank you all for attempting to make Israel a safe, prosperous country that I know it can be one day.”
Even though Sandy is no longer here, her time at the Peres Center inspired her to continue advocating for peace within Israel.
Another powerful tool in bridging the conflict is the unifying power of sport, particularly among youth. Mifalot promotes peace through cross-cultural soccer matches amongst Israel’s various communities. Gal Peleg, Mifalot’s International Development Director, believes it is crucial for youth to, “Put a face on and not just rely on stereotypes about the other side.”
Since soccer is a friendly, physical game that requires no common language, it allows youth to bond in ways that other activities cannot offer as easily.
Rachel Abrahams, a 24-year-old intern at Mifalot who helps with social media and international development, recently watched a mixed practice match outside of Jerusalem between Jewish children from a Kibbutz and Palestinian children from the West Bank. She movingly described the impact of Mifalot’s work: “Everyone was laughing and having fun. Most didn’t speak the same language, but it didn’t matter. At the end of the day, you can place your hope in children because they are innocent. The game reminded me that you can never give up hope; seeing these children playing together and not caring where someone was from was amazing.
It was inspiring to see everyone interacting on a human level.”
Rachel admitted that though she gets discouraged by the political climate in the country, seeing Israeli and Palestinian youth bond through soccer renewed Rachel’s hope for Israel. Now she is more motivated to promote sports development as a peace method.
Despite the political challenges of cross cultural work in Israel, these organizations provide opportunities for communities to develop one interaction at a time. This individual approach is a recurring theme amongst their work.
Ultimately, what does it mean for Diaspora Jews to give back to Israel? Just as these organizations are changing individuals’ notions of each other, volunteers come away from their service changed. Their ideas about Israeli social welfare become as rich and complex as Israel itself. Personally, they grow to understand themselves and their role as advocates for Israel on a much more intimate level. Hopefully these meaningful experiences can equip Diaspora Jews with the tools to advance social change within Israel and abroad.
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